Day Three of Ebertfest began much like Day Two, with panels at the Illini Union, the first titled “Remembering Roger Ebert” and the second “Film & Cultural Politics”. The former was an hour-long opportunity for the panelists (critics and Far-Flung Correspondents) and the audience to share their memories of and experiences with Ebert and express what he meant to them. Everyone had lovely, very personal stories to tell and the sense of loss, but more importantly love, was palpable in the room.
Krishna Shenoi relayed how he first got to know Ebert, through an out-of-the-blue comment at his blog Shenoi assumed was a prank, and how Ebert’s encouragement prompted his parents to support his decision to enter film school. Matt Zoller Seitz talked about his friendly rivalry with Ebert, as they tried to one-up each other with their discoveries of up and coming bloggers from around the world, Jana Monji spoke of her connection with Ebert, which began when she started sending in editorial corrections to his blog, and Odie Henderson shared how he bonded with Ebert over his struggle with his mother’s less than kind opinion of writers and writing. When the floor was opened to the audience, a long line of people shared what Ebert had meant to them, among them a woman he’d brought to her first AA meeting; she’s now 33 years sober. It was an emotional, heartfelt memorial, the kind many expected at last year’s festival. But the loss was too fresh then and everyone was still processing. This year, panelists and audience members alike have some distance, which allowed everyone some perspective on Ebert and relationship with him. It was a lovely start to a full day.
The second panel was the most intellectually engaging yet. Directors, actors, critics, and professionals discussed a wide range of topics, from film’s role in the political conversation, to the pressure to get difficult topics like race and mental illness right, to a renewed discussion of Net Neutrality. Haifaa Al-Mansour spoke about film as an inherently political statement in her home of Saudi Arabia, Ann Hui discussed the democratization of film criticism online and the strengths and weaknesses of this, and most of the panelists shared their thoughts on the differences between American and international film and the response to each in different places around the world. The audience Q&A was great as well, the most stimulating of the fest, and moderator Eric Pierson closed things off by asking each of the panelists to give an example of a film that challenged them in some way: the answers ranged from Triumph of the Will to Top Gun. Ebertfest archives and makes available all of the panels and post-film discussions on their YouTube channel and eventually, website. I highly recommend seeking out the video from this panel.
The three films of the day were He Who Gets Slapped, Capote, and Do the Right Thing, each of which feature marginalized characters struggling against the expectations and constraints of those in authority. Violence erupts, to different extents, in each of the films, and there’s a theme of madness, temporary or otherwise, running through each of the central conflicts.
The first film of the day was the 1924 silent film He Who Gets Slapped, directed by Victor Sjöström, which was presented with live scoring from the Alloy Orchestra. This film tells the story of a scientist (Lon Chaney) who becomes a clown after being betrayed by his wife and having his career destroyed by her lover. Chaney’s character’s circus act repeats his humiliation each night to a cheering crowd who, in the tradition of the sad clown, do not see his suffering beneath his mask. The film was introduced by film theorist Kristin Thompson, who elaborated on the film’s historical significance, and it was generally received well. The musicians did a wonderful job, adding depth and creativity to the experience, the most memorable elements being the incorporation in the scoring of the musical saw, accordion, and bowed cymbals. Afterward, members of the Alloy Orchestra joined Thompson on stage with critic Michael Phillips to discuss the film, as well as their compositional process.
The second film of the day was Bennett Miller’s Capote, which was presented on a beautiful 35mm print. Miller was on hand to discuss the film and he came out afterward with Co-President and Co-Founder of Sony Pictures Classics Michael Barker. Much of the post-film conversation centered on Philip Seymour Hoffman and his experience with the film. Hoffman was very insecure about his performance, worried about the drastic physical discrepancies between himself and Capote and only able to truly inhabit the role when he stepped back from the script, something Hoffman was uncomfortable doing. Barker also quizzed a bemused Miller on the ties between Capote, Moneyball, and his upcoming film, Foxcatcher, finding many similarities and thematic correlations which Miller didn’t dispute, but seemed far less interested in. They also touched on the beauty of celluloid, with Miller loves, “The pulse of film… really is different”, and discussed creativity and process, with Miller saying, “By definition, creativity is deviant”, though he hastened to add that this deviance is not necessarily criminal.
The final film of the day was the much-anticipated 25th Anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, also projected in 35mm from a pristine print. In the 16 years of Ebertfest, would-be attendees in the rush line have only been turned away a handful of times. It’s a point of pride for the festival- those who want to get in nearly always do. Based on the capacity crowd for the final screening of the day, this was one of those few times. The energy in the theater was palpable. From those famous, kinetic opening credits throughout the film, the audience was riveted. Lee was received with thunderous applause both before and after the film, when he came out to discuss it with Chaz Ebert, Michael Phillips, and Odie Henderson. The conversation covered a wide range of topics, from Phillips’ quick reminder of some other films from the same year (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and of course, Driving Miss Daisy), to the unbelievably condescending and idiotic responses from several prominent critics who feared Do The Right Thing would prompt enraged African American audiences to riot in the streets, to updates on the Bulls and Blackhawks games.
Henderson discussed the contrast in critical reaction to the two major losses in the film, Radio Raheem and Sal’s pizzeria, Lee detailed the crucial selection of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which wasn’t the first song Lee and co. tried, and the group marveled as a whole at the depth of talent in the extended cast. There were two rather disappointingly uninformed questions/comments raised in the Q&A, but on the whole the crowd interaction was thought-provoking and positive. Chaz spoke of Roger Ebert’s love of the film and his ire at its loss of the Palm D’Or at Cannes, where it premiered in 1989, and in a restatement of his comments at Oscar time, Lee expressed his love of 12 Years a Slave but belief that the important change needed to open new opportunities for underrepresented voices and stories is not for films discussing these issues to win awards and break box office records, but for the makeup of the gatekeeper class in Hollywood to shift to a more accurate representation of the America of today. It was a powerful, enlightening experience, and another fantastic end to a long day at Ebertfest.